The day sounds unassuming. Just another Wednesday in the life of a college coach.
Kevin Wilhelm, yet to eat dinner, accepts a student journalist’s phone call some time past seven p.m. He’s been awake since early that morning, beginning his day when his wife did, as she readied for work. He woke his daughter up, cooked her breakfast and drove her to school, then settled into his office to return emails and join a Zoom call. With only six individuals permitted per practice session, due to COVID-19 restrictions, he spends four hours accommodating his players. He goes home but, of course, work doesn’t wait in the office. There are more emails to reply to. Then, he picks up that call.
Wilhelm’s association with Slippery Rock soccer began over two-and-a-half decades earlier. He spent his freshman year at Gannon as a part of a historically formidable 1993 Golden Knights squad that finished the season ranked third nationally, claimed at regional championship and advanced to the national semifinals.
The private school’s location, academics and social atmosphere wasn’t quite what Wilhelm desired, though. He didn’t feel his personality fit what he calls “the Gannon mentality.”
“I kind of wanted the total college experience and that didn’t really exist [there],” Wilhelm says. “You had a lot of students that would commute and just show up for class, then go away. You had a lot of soccer players there that were just there for the money, that would come in for a year and then leave and either social jump and try to go D-I or go back to Europe or South America or wherever they were from. And it was lacking in those departments.”
Interest in the sport management program and the connection of his father having been a professor at SRU drew Wilhelm to his home.
“I transferred in and within five days it was a walk-on and all the NCAA paperwork was done,” Wilhelm says. “It was a ‘here you go, here’s your jersey, and you’re good to go’ type deal.”
After a semester in Slippery Rock, Wilhelm had found the social and educational experience he had so desired. While the soccer wasn’t at his previous school’s level, the team was still competitive.
“The whole situation was just very appealing,” Wilhelm says. “It was kind of the total enchilada. You had friendship, you had a good education, and […] you were in a good setting. It pretty much just had everything I was looking for at that point and time in my life.”
Arriving in Slippery Rock from Erie, Wilhelm says, was like comparing night and day. The Golden Knights had sponsors such as Umbro, a worldwide sportswear and soccer equipment supplier based out of the United Kingdom.
Wilhelm estimates that Slippery Rock’s roster was almost 80% Pennsylvanian and that no more than three or four international players wore green and white.
“You basically had everything handed to you and everything else,” Wilhelm says.
Put simply, the equipment at Slippery Rock was far humbler. Wilhelm recalls having to fetch practice gear from a cage and sharing training attire with physical education students. Resourcefulness was instilled in players. They were expected to make the most of their situations.
“It was always an efficiency mentality,” Wilhelm says. “[It was] blue collar, do more with less and make it the best you could possibly be. It’s kind of like, if somebody gives you something [to take care of for a week], is it possible to return that item in better condition than it was given to you?”
In his time playing at Slippery Rock, Wilhelm aided in bringing the program a Western Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Soccer Conference crown in his sophomore season. In 1995, he was named All-WPISC honoree.
Around the time he returned from working with the MLS’ Columbus Crew, where Wilhelm went after graduating with his bachelor’s, he enrolled at Slippery Rock to get his master’s degree in sport management while also coaching club soccer on the side. Knowing that Wilhelm, a former Slippery Rock teammate, was acquainted with the recruiting market, then-head coach Matt Thompson invited him to fill a volunteer assistant opening on his staff.
In that first stint as a subordinate at Slippery Rock, from 2002-03, a cultural shift commenced. The team wanted to be viewed differently by outsiders. Recruiting was focused mainly on prospects within the state or those which share a border with Pennsylvania, geared to bringing on players with a “never say die” attitude. The players that signed during Wilhelm’s first assistant coaching duration laid the groundwork for a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title in 2005- the program’s first since 1974.
“We stumbled on an equation then that was a perfect equation for Slippery Rock,” Wilhelm says. “It was that equation of those types of personalities and having that understanding from the inside-out of what Slippery Rock University offers, but also what it desires from the type of student-athlete that goes to Slippery Rock.”
Wilhelm, however, wasn’t part of the program when it had hoisted a league trophy after a 31-year wait. Almost two full seasons earlier, he’d accepted the head coaching job—or, more accurately, jobs—40 minutes up the road at Thiel College. With only a part-time assistant to help out, he ran both the men’s and women’s teams for the Tomcats. He sums up his three-year spell at the D-III school as a “nightmare,” saying he could have worked all 24 hours each day and, still, it wouldn’t have been enough to get what was needed done.
Wilhelm adds up the daily workload he shouldered at Thiel. The two practices ate up 3-5 hours of each day. Recruiting would take him another hour. Office work would keep him an extra 3-4 hours.
“It just became prohibitive to having a wife and a family and living a normal life,” Wilhelm says. “The lifestyle was, you’re going to make it another one or two years, then you were going to be burnt out.”
While away, Wilhelm had realized the extent of the bonds that coaches create with their signees while watching SRU’s title run from the bleachers.
“Any time you recruit a kid, you’re starting a relationship,” Wilhelm says. “I rarely talk about soccer anymore with our recruiting visits, just because I’m trying to get more of a feel of what [a prospect’s] mom and dad are like, what the kid’s attitude is like and what he can give us. You can see a kid play 10-15 times and watch the video. You know what he’s going to be like on the field. You don’t know what he’s going to be like the other 22 hours of the day.”
Wilhelm picked up on Thompson’s unselfish and trusting coaching nature and today praises those who help him do his job in a more effective manner.
“It was kind of foretelling about the type of coaches needed in Slippery Rock, with someone that understands that none of us know everything,” Wilhelm says. “I know right now that I don’t know everything. I’m lucky that I have two GAs that split one GA [position] and I have a volunteer assistant. I delegate a lot of that stuff to them because I trust what their abilities are and what they can do. And Matt was the same way.”
In 2007, with his former assistant, Matt Garrett, having recently moved on to take a coaching job at Gettysburg College, Thompson dialed Wilhelm. Wilhelm would no longer be driving back-and-forth to Greenville. Working as an assistant for the green and white would give him more time to spend with his wife, Amanda, an elementary education teacher in the Grove City School District, and his newborn, Keira.
Upon returning for his second stretch, Wilhelm noticed a better quality within the Slippery Rock program. There was talent and depth across the pitch. Defensive organization was consistent from front to back. The team employed longer balls and crosses in its attack.
Wilhelm was learning how to manage a team. He saw that he could use a more hands-off approach in practices and games. He wanted to figure out what drives each player.
“The X’s and O’s can be gone over in 30 minutes and a couple of practice sessions each week,” Wilhelm says. “But you still have to put that time in day in, day out to the motivation of a certain individual versus another individual.”
The college game had changed, Wilhelm says, and continues to change. The level of athlete had improved. In the PSAC, the physical strafe could take a toll on teams made up of smaller statures.
“It’s almost like there’s less passing and technical ability and skill and dynamic ability,” Wilhelm says. “And more defensive structure, 50/50 challenges, running over people, and physical stuff like that.”
That leaves two options, Wilhelm says. Teams can deal with the rough and tumble style of play or use technical skills to avoid getting touched.
Navigating the PSAC, the program earned an appearance in the PSAC title game against California (Pa.) and an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament in 2008, reaching the second round. The next year, the team beat Millersville for its second PSAC trophy in five years and advanced to the round of 16 in the national playoffs.
Then, following those three years together, Thompson left for Lees McRae College and Wilhelm went back to club coaching.
In 2018, much like a deteriorating home that had once been among the nicest in the neighborhood, the Slippery Rock men’s soccer program had seen its better days. Athletic Director Paul Lueken and university administration lent Wilhelm, a familiar face, the keys to the modest house, keeping tabs as they looked for a buyer.
The program’s previous head coach had stepped down at a curious time, departing in late June with an appalling .294 winning percentage, having won only 10 of his 34 games on the Slippery Rock sideline. Only two PSAC programs had less league victories than SRU in that two-season span.
Having arrived only two weeks before preseason camp and needing to deal with issues left behind, Wilhelm sought at least to improve the condition of the program’s academics, finances, playing culture and recruiting by the season’s end. He spiritedly took on the home improvement project.
Although the team failed to reach the postseason, it went 6-10-2. Five of The Rock’s losses in that campaign came by only one marker. Morale had been lifted.
The outdated hardwood flooring was replaced, the dreadful wallpaper was stripped and new appliances were installed. Still, the interim head coach would have been ready to return the house keys. The residence was in a more respectable condition than was given to him.
“[Even] if it was a three-month, four-month deal, and then I’m either out the door because I couldn’t do enough or […] because there’s somebody better that’s waiting,” Wilhelm says. “As an alumnus, my number one goal was that the program be better when I walked out of the door than it was when I showed up.”
Even with the improvement and promise shown, Wilhelm wasn’t even close to a finished product. If he were to shed the interim tag, he’d need multiple recruiting classes to set an example for expectations.
“That was put up in spray paint that nobody—it doesn’t matter if you’re the best college soccer coach in the world—this can’t be fixed in two years,” Wilhelm says. “A lot of things happened over a period of time that led to the loss of culture, led to the budget issues, and led to the different styles of players being recruited.”
In Wilhelm, the university found a buyer. He could now call himself the head coach of his alma mater and he was aware of the sacrifices that come with that.
“It has to be a passion,” Wilhelm says. “You have to care more about that program and points in time than you do about your health, being hungry, being tired or how much child care costs so you can run a practice and not have to pick up your daughter from school […] If you’ve played at a program, that feeling is there. You’ve sweat, you’ve bled, you’ve given up whatever you’ve given up, so then you love that program. That’s why you can share those experiences with your current players.”
Wilhelm also mentions that he couldn’t do his job as effectively as he does without the support and understanding that comes from his family.
Every now and then, Wilhelm sees small signs that his team is morphing to what he envisions. After a long day, he watches his players push through extra repetitions.
“It’s not because anybody said you had to,” Wihelm says. “There’s your sign. You get those little moments where a group of guys comes together, does more than is expected, and does it because they want to do it. Not because they feel they have to do it. Not because they think that’s what’s demanded. They do it because it’s within their DNA of this is how we do things.”
As for the time it takes to be at the helm, Wilhelm says he’s having fun.
“I couldn’t do what I currently do for a program that I wasn’t in love with,” Wilhelm says. “I wouldn’t be willing to do what I do on a daily basis anywhere else.”
He ponders for a second.
“Don’t let the administration know that,” he jokes.
The meaning of being a Rock soccer player hasn’t changed in the slightest since Wilhelm’s time lacing up his cleats. Though he does concern himself with the program’s standard, there are more important things than championship hardware to the head coach.
“I want them to have that total experience that I enjoyed, and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen,” Wilhelm says. “The end goal is to make sure the guys we have on the roster […] got the best experience they could possibly get during their time with Slippery Rock University soccer.”
It’s then that it hits him.
“I’ve never really reflected on it,” Wilhelm realizes. “I just haven’t had that much time to sit back and scratch my head and think ‘Why do I do this?’ You know?”